Sass to Grass
by Kara Martinez Bachman
Missy Armstrong has it all: talent, love of family, respect … and the guts to push back on ideas that worry her. There’s a strength in that, and Armstrong thinks she’s developed that ability because she first approached it all from a different angle than most.
“I probably maybe have a little bit of a different perspective because I didn’t grow up in bluegrass,” she said.
When she was in her 20s, Armstrong–who had grown up singing in church–attended her first bluegrass festival. There was a song that caught her attention. She can’t today recall its name, but it dealt with a musical theme she said has shown up a few times in bluegrass songs, and on that day years ago, it caused her to raise an eyebrow. The song had the theme of a woman being murdered by a predator.
“I distinctly remember hearing a ‘killing of the woman’ song,” Armstrong reminisced, “and I was like…oh my word! I can’t believe everybody just sits here and listens like it was normal, cause it’s not normal to me.”
She set out to remedy this with her recording of “Ain’t Going Down to the River,” which made it to the top of the charts. She had been approached by musicians Buddy Melton and Milan Miller, who she said just knew this song would be a fit for her. Miller had co-penned it with Beth Husband, and Armstrong had the perfect attitude to deliver its message.
“It’s kind of a poke-back at the whole ‘killing of the woman’ thing,” Armstrong said. “It made the comment that women are smarter than this. Not today, Mr. Bluegrass Man!”
While these might sound like fighting words, Armstrong assures she really loves and respects good men.
“I’ve raised three boys, and I love them. I have a husband, and I love him. But I AM sassy,” she added.
A smile could be heard in her voice. It’s exactly that voice that empowers Armstrong both in her music and in her life. It appears she, alone is at the helm of her career, and as she explained, sometimes that means deciding to pull back a bit instead of always charging forward.
Several years ago–before she decided to pull things back–she’d been touring with Detour. She’d done that for eight seasons. As any touring musician can verify, it’s difficult to maintain a family life while on the road. Armstrong was lucky and was usually only gone on weekends, so could be at home to care for her sons during the week. But it still took a toll. A few years ago, she pulled the plug on her work with Detour.
“I have not regretted it for one single moment,” she said.
It seems her decision to prioritize family has not hurt her career but has simply carved out a new path. Her solo work has been embraced by DJs and bluegrass fans and recording without the constant touring has been a way for Armstrong to finish raising her kids while still staying active in the biz. She’s glad that her solo work — including her EP, “My Remedy” — has been embraced so vigorously.
“I was very surprised,” she said. “I obviously am very appreciative of the DJs…the fans…I appreciate that they give me the grace to be where I am. Every single day I feel so lucky and blessed.”
Despite recording more than one song with a feminist bent, Armstrong said her experiences in the bluegrass world have always reflected respect for her as a female artist. She said back when she was in Detour, she wasn’t the band leader–someone else was–but people would still look to her often for leadership.
“I always found that refreshing,” she said. “I’m not an incredible musician, and I still feel I’m treated with kindness and respect for what I DO bring. There are lots of women that came before that probably experienced something different, but bluegrass has evolved.”
Armstrong is making her mark on the genre she fell in love with years ago and said she is amazed that today she’s recording with people such as respected banjo whiz, Terry Baucom. She said her love of the music is co-mingled with a love of its adherents. She called the music and the people “hands-on” and “really authentic.”
“At a jam, people would really draw you in. They would include you,” she said, reminiscing about her early experiences in this world. “They are honest-to-goodness authentic people.”